The Young and The Feckless: Expiration Dated

J. Maureen Henderson
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I hate to break it to you, but we have a sell-by date. We're perishable, dude. Highly perishable.

I spoke these words to a friend as we meandered down the street engaged in another one of our snarky, rapid-fire dialogues about how we ended up here. Here being the waning years of our twenties without being firmly established on solid career paths and without appropriate grown-up milestones (marriage, kids, home ownership) in our cross-hairs. We've known each other forever, so it felt almost as if we were 17 again (but we're both so much cooler now) and wondering what we were actually going to do with our whole lives in front of us. Except we're not 17 and our grace period for a To Be Determined future is rapidly running out. Comforting, non?

Photo by SOCIALisBetter

I'm not talking about a sell-by date in romcom terms - landing Mr. Right and having babies post-haste (although the gendered nature of the quarter-life crisis is an issue I will address in a future post) - but with respect to the expectation by potential employers and society at large that you have your act together by a certain age.

There's precious little room for reinvention in the American working life. In large part, decisions made as a teenager determine the course of your career. At 16, I thought I was going to be an author. At 17, I thought I was going to be a public relations specialist (if you know me personally, the eye-rolling is totally warranted). At 19, it was a journalist. At 21, a world-saving United Nations bigwig. I am none of these things, but my resume still bears evidence of these well-intentioned tangents. Each decision had the side effect of precluding future decisions in other directions. Bet your guidance counselor didn't tell you that. By choosing to do X, you're not simply passing on Y in the moment, you are, in many cases, sealing your life off from the option of ever going after Y.

It comes down to two factors - finite resources and an unwieldy history. In the case of the latter, we are defined at a glance (for better or worse) by prospective employers and the world at large by the jobs we've held and the education we've received. What you have done dictates what people see you as capable of doing in the future. Not fair, but true. And the flexibility to change directions, ask for a do-over, or make course corrections decreases as the years speed past. As you age, a varied work history is no longer seen as a product of necessity or a voyage of self-discovery, but a sign of commitment-phobia or the dreaded flakiness.

And even if you could reinvent yourself sans judgmental repercussions, who has the the resources to do so? Who can spare the time and has the ability to shelve existing obligation (family, etc.) to drop out of the workforce to go back to school for retraining and a fresh start? And even if time isn't an object, what about the cost? I don't know anyone in their twenties who has been squirreling away a slush fund in the event that they are visited in a dream by the ghost of Max Weber informing them of what their true calling is.

Rock? Meet hard place. Welcome to the reality of coming of career age in post-millennial America.

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19 Comments Have Been Posted

Yeah, but a lot of people

Yeah, but a lot of people seem to be in the same boat, no? So maybe the criteria that we grew up with (mine was married at 25, after amazing career as rockstar, couple of sprogs -none even near true) has to change as the majority does not do it. Or not? Eek!- *cue frenzied man-hunt and baby-making. Ugh :)


LIFE IS NOT CINDERELLA or snow white or a fairy tale where your the princess get it through your head!!


Dude, I think I specifically indicated that the expiration date I refer to has NOTHING to do with fairytales or romantic comedies, but the reality faced by twentysomething members of BOTH sexes that there is a societal imperative telling us to get our sh*t together by a certain age, even if such an imperative no longer fits the career paths followed by and/or open to many members of our cohort.

If this doesn't reflect YOUR personal reality, congrats. You have a leg up on many of the rest of us.

Fantasy vs. Reality

My father at a young age made sure i was aware of the difference between Pipe Dreams and Goals.

At 16, I thought I was going to be an author. At 17, I thought I was going to be a public relations specialist (if you know me personally, the eye-rolling is totally warranted). At 19, it was a journalist. At 21, a world-saving United Nations bigwig.

All of these career paths are PIPE DREAMS:

the chances of you becoming any of these things are so slim that they may as well be pipe dreams. Why not throw in an astronaut or an NBA basketball player. Because they are about as obtainable as a Journalist, PR, or UN rep. The number of people(especially women) going to school with these dreams in mind and then realize they are a waitress after college and don't know why just makes me laugh.

A Goal is something that is obtainable:

If you look at the reality of your skill set and where your going to school along with the industry that school feeds you have a much better chance of actually choosing a REAL career path. I wish it was all roses and you can become anything you want when you grow up as long as you work hard at it but that is TOTAL BS.

my dad told me this alot did yours?

Pipe dreams? Really?

Hi there,

Thanks for your comments. However, I don't think you are correct in stating that the career goals Maureen mentions are, "pipe dreams." They are, in fact, "REAL career paths" for many. And! Part of the point Maureen is making here is that college students change their career goals frequently, which may limit options in the future. (Methinks you actually agree with her on that point.)

As far as becoming "anything you want when you grow up as long as you work hard at it," well, that may be BS for many of us, but it is precisely that BS that Maureen is deconstructing here. Instead of trashing her college career goals as "pipe dreams," (which, btw, she already kind of did herself in the post) maybe you should direct your energies to doing the same.

Oh, and PS, there is nothing wrong with a guy being on a feminist site, so no reason to feel self-conscious there. Hooray!

Yes, those are Real career

Yes, those are Real career paths for many people but most of them end up waitress's.

The fact that they are Real career paths for many people is exactly why they are Pipe Dreams. Ok, lets deconstruct the U.N. rep career path for example(i could easily do the other ones). So there are 192 member States of the United Nations. Lets say each country has 10 reps. that is 2,000 possible jobs.

There are over 4,000 universities in the U.S. With a total of who knows 500,000 students. If i was going to hire someone to be a U.N. rep i would probably only choose someone from a top University there might be 5,000 applicants from Ivy League schools alone trying to get 10-20 positions. These chances are so slim that if you aren't a 4.0 student at an IVY League school you may as well try out for the NBA. This is why they are Pipe Dreams because the chances of it happening are literally statistically impossible. So it is hard to think of something impossible as a REAL career path. Is wanting to become an NBA basketball player or an astronaut a REAL career path?

Re: Fantasy vs. Reality

I've actually been both a working journalist and an international development specialist in my career, so my point wasn't that these career paths are unattainable (if you think PR is an out-of-reach option, please make your next stop Twitter, which is literally lousy with PR mavens and socmedia specialists), so much as they represent interests that are no longer personally relevant.

Should we be better informed and educated at 15, 16 and 17 about what realistic employment prospects in our desired fields are? Absolutely. On the whole, the school system and parents (esp. of millennials) preach potential over pragmatism. I think there also needs to be thought given to young people whose skill sets don't align neatly with a given profession. Blessed are the future accountants and engineers, but what about everyone else?

I badmouth personal branding, but there is a real need for guidance for youth and young adults (and heck, mid-career professionals who want/need to make job changes) about how to taken the entirety of their experience and skill set and identify the labor market contexts in which it could be applicable and to develop the ability to present this cohesive package in such a way that it makes a compelling case to potential employers who wouldn't otherwise give you a second look because your background isn't a point-by-point match with their job description. Not only is there a need for this service offering, I'm 100% confident that it would be a bloody goldmine in the right hands.

Another thing my Dad told

Another thing my Dad told me. Work is Work there is no sugar coating it. My mom is an accountant she is not blessed with accounting skills she just WORKS harder than you. She doesn't like what she does ITS WORK. people pay you to do it for a reason cause it's WORK. It beats shoveling ditches but it's still WORK. This whole air of self entitlement is the whole problem with young American Women in general. If you want to take the reigns and be equal you better get your elbows dirty. Because employers don't have to cater to your skill set you need to cater to what they need or start your own business. I am a Computer Science Major because i know i will get a job but you'll say "oh you must be in to that or oh you're just more mathematically inclined so it's a natural progression" This is not true I used to be a business major and i was getting all A's so guess what i realized it was too easy and not challenging enough. So i switched to something more challenging. The accountants and engineers are blessed they are blessed with hard work, determination and persistence. And employers know this, so they hire them you're right it is a shame that you are not blessed with these attributes but I understand why no one will hire you.

Slow your roll, please.


I think your parents are onto something with the "work is work" thing, but I'd suggest you be careful in asserting that "young American Women" are all self-entitled, shiftless layabouts. There are plenty of young women in this country who work their asses off doing all sorts of things, Maureen included. Please stop with the name-calling, the generalizations, the blaming, etc. Thank you.

I'm sensing some

I'm sensing some mansplaining here.


Guy you have a point, and I can appreciate what you're saying. Work is work, people do need to hear that, because the playing out of a decade of inertia could be due to entitlement issues. However your generalizations are cliches. One of the reasons I like this blog is because it's filled with intelligent comments by women - that I love. And perhaps that's why you are here. Refreshing, no? I love hearing from and reading about women who do not fall into the category of cliche. That's why this article was so hard to stomach (although well written, and important- but hard to stomach also). Society plays a strong role in molding gender forms, so if a female or what could look like a big whole lot of females do end up in these generalizations that's not really their fault.

I think that this is an important topic because many find themselves in the same box, and it's a shitty place to be. So what can we do to get the hell out?


Pardon me, but I am hard pressed to believe that you have any idea what kinds of real problems "young American women" face, because if you did, you would have thought twice before implying that all young American women are or have a problem. Seriously? If you're not sure why you're on this web site, then don't leave comments that degrade and demean people (women) that you do not know, and that you clearly do not understand.

Uh, if women "want to take the reigns and be equal"? How original and refreshing.
FYI, women have been doing work (um, getting their "elbows dirty" as you put it) for freaking centuries. Men have been allowed to exist in a world where they get to go out and work in the public sphere because historically, women have been around to take care of all the other "inconvenient" little things in life, such as laundry, mopping, cleaning and other household tasks that are the equivelant to at least one lifetimes worth of a man's work. Oh, right, and the whole making babies thing (aka, making people, as in, you know, populating the planet). Ah, right, and that pesky wage gap (it's 77 cents on the dollar, look it up if you don't believe me, and that is most definitely not because women just aren't trying hard enough. Structural inequality is a real issue, m'dear.) And I mean, refute this if you really think you can, but I can assure you that the research and factual evidence is on my side for this one, and I'd be happy to cite my sources if you'd like. (Not everyone yaps off at the gab without one single grain of real, tangible or empirical evidence to prove his point. Sorry, Dad doesn't exactly count as a comprehensive worldview.)

Not to mention, the more important and overarching point this article makes has almost nothing to do with what kind(s) of work the author does, does not, once wanted or wishes to do. It has everything to do with conditions under which we currently exist (collectively, as a society, not as disembodies automatons programmed to tap on machines for eight hours a day). The ever-changing conditions of a post-modern, post-millenial, post-whatever society, paired with the insane rantings of pop culture and the mass media have led not only to a relatively unstable future, but have built a solid platform on which people (not only women, people) are boxed into similar shapes, ideas and age groups. The more narrow the acceptable range of body types, age groups and social/political identities becomes, the less chance any of us having of getting out alive, let alone happy. Make any sense? I really hate to have to spell this out for anyone but, I cannot stand to see this ignorance paraded about the internet with little to no consideration for who you are even speaking to.

Come on back to the site whenever you wish to read up on how us feminists spin the mass media into something useful and meaningful, but next time, switch into your critical lens glasses before you click on.


I didn't want to make anyone feel bad. I guess I just meant to provide a dissenting viewpoint on how I see the world. You are right not all American Women have the problem of self entitlement just all the one's i know(with the exception of one).

The reason I don't know why I'm on this site is because the site consists of 99.9% female bloggers and posters. If there is a guy I doubt he disagrees with anything. I am currently in a Women's Studies course(one of two guys) in college (I am open minded and I am trying to see your viewpoints) and I see a similar type of distaste and vilification of people with opposing viewpoints. OPPOSING VIEWPOINTS IS THE CORNERSTONE OF DEMOCRACY. I suppose you guys think I am some sort of Women Hating Man Spamer or whatever but i really am not. I just grew up on tough love and have extra thick skin because of it. I realize not everyone is used to hearing things put forth so straightforward and bluntly. Again I'm sorry if i hurt anyone's feelings.

I do believe that there are societal/structural hurdles towards women in the workplace. But 77 cents to the dollar is fuzzy statistical manipulation.

The ever-changing conditions of a post-modern, post-millenial, post-whatever society, paired with the insane rantings of pop culture and the mass media have led not only to a relatively unstable future, but have built a solid platform on which people (not only women, people) are boxed into similar shapes, ideas and age groups.

UHHH.. a little confused on this one didn't feminism start identity politics?

I don't know this whole thread has gotten way off topic from this article but I'm glad I started it. lol. Looking forward to your answer.

I will absolutely agree with

I will absolutely agree with you on this point: We need to teach young people how to present themselves to potential employers effectively, rather than teaching specific skills. I feel fairly confident that one of the big reasons I was one of the few to get a job immediately out of grad school is that I spent a lot of time working on the "personal branding" process (although I also hate that term), and I made sure I learned job searching skills, not just the skills to do my job. Young people need to know how to do these things, especially if they want to be involved in highly competitive fields like mine.

And I think this is one point this (kind of jerky) guy is missing here: Being a writer, or a UN rep, or a successful PR are not unrealistic or impossible, and they don't have to be pipe dreams. But they are highly competitive and in order to be successful, you need to know how to compete. I suspect that you are a person who is well on your way to knowing how to successfully compete in these fields, and I find it a little suspicious that this dude is just writing these fields off as possibilities for you (and perhaps for most women, which is the impression I get from his 'waitress' comments).

We are in a different economic climate. Knowing how to present yourself and how to succeed in competitive fields are becoming just as important as knowing how to work hard. And if you have professional goals, I think it's much better to learn how to fight to succeed than it is to tell yourself you can't achieve them.

I, for one, am always grateful that my dad told me that I could achieve any professional goal I set my mind to, and never told me to give up because my goals were just pipe dreams.

What your parents are saying

What your parents are saying now or when you were growing up might have a lot less to do with our inability to find work than what our parents our doing: still working. Talking endlessly about "us" and our skill set and our goals ignores the larger context we enter when we seek work. My personal experience is in the nonprofit sector. I've bounced laterally for many years, unable to find an organization in which I can grow at the rate I want, in large part due to the fact that theses organizations are currently filled with women my mother's age. Baby boomers, especially women, went to work in larger numbers than generations past and both men and women are working longer to support themselves in this pension-less world. I'm not trying to blame middle age people by any means.

My reaction ties back to previous post about unpaid internships. I'm in my 30s and I think a lot of my bouncing around has had to do with the fact that organizations have many more jobs in the lower paid categories. Those lower paid categories, the jobs with "associate" next to them, can sometimes feel interchangable, motivating me to seek other experiences elsewhere. Even when some of these organizations want to cultivate talent (and they do because they are facing a crisis in the next several years as the boomers retire) they often lack the resources to do so. That has nothing to do with my talents or skills or ability to charm employers. The work world we enter is very different than the work world our parents entered. It's nice that our parents gave us encouragement and were often great role models, but there is a cold economic reality behind why many of us are struggling to follow in their straight and narrow footsteps.

jordanb just said what i

jordanb just said what i said but nicely so maybe you ladies (and gents) will have a better chance of hearing it.

"It's nice that our parents gave us encouragement and were often great role models, but there is a cold economic reality behind why many of us are struggling to follow in their straight and narrow footsteps."

I wouldn't be quite so

I wouldn't be quite so worried about running out of time, career-wise. In the last few years of my twenties I had a lot of similar thoughts and worries about my career, and where it was going and whether it was going there fast enough and oh-my-god I'm a failure and it started getting scary. Then I started talking to people outside of my little generational bracket (which can be tough when you live in an urban area, oddly enough) and I realized that a lot of people I know made career changes late in life, and are doing just fine. Better than fine, really.

In my experience, the career fears had more to do with the fact that I was turning 30 and starting to feel old. Not really old, just older, like an actual adult who didn't want to go out on Tuesday anymore and started to think "these crazy kids." And I felt like I should have my shit together more. But the fact is that even though turning 30 feels like you're turning old, you are still at the very early stages of your adult life and you have plenty of time left. I guess I'm saying that I think it's more psychological than anything else. At least for me it was. And making a career change is always possible. As long as you are working hard and learning, you'll be just fine.


"What you have done dictates what people see you as capable of doing in the future."

I wish I had personal experience to prove the above otherwise, but I don't. I don't know a lot of people in the real world who can say different either. It's worse than just your resume, however in the past. It's what have you done LATELY? If you made the (societally-viewed) fatal error of daring to fall in love, get married and stay home with the subsequent kids, good luck and pray someone in the family had the $$ goods to get you back on track when it's time to go back to work. For most jobs, it's de riguer to sign up for refresher courses, especially in technologically relied-upon fields. Even then, you're up against so many more applicants (recession, anyone?).

My key is to stick to two philosophies: Do what I love and Be the last resort. Even if you get that coveted job, you still have to prove to the staff and the higher-ups that you're capable. They won't give you a bone without proof (the testing never ends, kids). It's why I finagled my way around that problem back in the stone ages (1986) by volunteering like a man man during college, while holding down two part-time jobs (one which I'd held back in high school). The volunteer-work translated into a job waiting for me by the time I graduated. I mean, minus the recession.

Another excellent look at the 20-something situational.

The margin matters

You've warned me against binary thinking, yet this is sort of binary in it's message don't you think? If you don't have some certain standard of living by x-age, or a career, or family, or whatever is said to be valuable by society or you, then does the effort it takes to take another path to get what you want not worth it? I think it's worth it if the process proves itself to be more valuable than the end goal. Some people go their entire lives without being tested by considerable hardships or roadblocks while other people never develop at all because of the overwhelming odds they're faced with from the beginning.

At the end of the day, your self-worth is what matters. Comparing it to anyone else is grounds for feeling like shit perpetually. Allowing yourself a margin of error or extra time to get within the vicinity of where you want to be is so crucial. Hell, even the times when you realize something simply isn't going to happen, you should at least allow yourself to feel like crap for a bit and then get excited about something else.

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